Natick is expanding training to help its police officers avoid racial bias in their work. Lakeville is equipping its officers with body-worn cameras. Burlington is buying a data radar recorder to evaluate resident complaints about speeding drivers.
At a time when many municipalities are strapped for funds, area police departments are getting fresh resources to prevent crime and bolster enforcement and training through federal dollars recently awarded by the state.
The Office of Grants and Research disburses funds once or twice a year from the Edward J. Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In the recent round — announced in the fall — 160 departments, many from Greater Boston, are receiving a combined $7.8 million.
The grants will meet an assortment of needs — from mountain bikes to tasers, breathalyzers, and electronic speed signs ― but many of the initiatives are geared to address the national calls for police accountability and reforms sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Last spring, local minority leaders called on lawmakers to enact police reforms, ranging from requirements that all police officers in Massachusetts wear body cameras to the creation of independent boards to review police misconduct.
Following passage in the state Legislature, Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday signed into law a sweeping police reform bill that provides for creating a civilian-led commission to oversee the certification and decertification of officers; bans the use of choke holds; further restricts the use of no-knock warrants and facial surveillance technology; and requires officers to intervene when another officer is using excessive force. It also calls for creating a commission to explore uniform policies on the use of body cameras, including whether they should be required statewide.
One community that is addressing police reform is Natick. The town has included anti-bias in its regular officer training for the past five years. But with a $20,000 grant, the police department is adding a new program educating officers and selected community members about the history of policing in the United States and how it connects to concerns today about the way law enforcement is conducted in communities of color, said Police Chief James G. Hicks.
“Officers in general feel they are being blamed for actions of single officers elsewhere in the country,” Hicks said. “It’s frustrating for them but I also feel there is a lack of understanding among officers about how we got to where we are today,” he said, citing how policing is historically linked to protecting slavery and curbing protests for racial justice.
Hicks said he hopes the sessions show participating officers that “this is not about them as individual officers, that there is a history that got us here, so they can understand that history and at the same time become change agents.” He said he also hopes community member participants “will see officers who are empathetic and want to do the right thing.”
Ten area police departments — in Berlin, Bolton, Hamilton, Ipswich, Lakeville, Newburyport, Rowley, Salisbury, Upton, and Westborough — were among 25 statewide awarded grants to purchase body-worn cameras for videotaping interactions with the public.
Ipswich patrol officers have worn body cameras since early 2017, when the police acquired 25 of them through a previous grant. With a new $15,000 award, the department is purchasing 15 newer-model cameras offering higher resolution and better night-time capacity, according to Police Chief Paul Nikas.
The new and older cameras combined also will provide the department enough cameras to assign one to each of its part-time summer officers, who until now have had to use spare cameras on their shifts.
“For transparency purposes and accountability to my community, I think it’s great,” Nikas said of the camera program. “We’ve got nothing but positive feedback from residents.”
Lakeville is using its $40,000 grant to purchase 21 body-worn cameras, enough to equip all its officers. The department has maintained several body cameras since 2015 for use by a few designated officers, but now “we are getting them for everybody,” said Police Chief Matthew Perkins.
Perkins said Massachusetts police departments have been relatively slow to embrace body cameras because state law offers little guidance on their use. But he sees that changing.
“It’s time,” he said, noting growing support for the cameras as a form of police accountability, though adding the public does have privacy concerns that need to be addressed in setting up camera programs.
With the help of a $20,000 grant, Brookline plans to provide its police officers an innovative training program — Ethical Policing is Courageous, or EPIC — that teaches them to intervene when they observe a fellow officer using or about to employ excessive force.
“This training will hopefully give them the skills to do that and help establish a culture that makes it very clear that is what is expected,” said Lieutenant Jennifer Paster, who heads the Brookline department’s crisis intervention unit and its peer support team.
Brookline already requires and trains officers to engage in peer interventions, but Paster said adding EPIC, which has been used in New Orleans and by other police departments, would reinforce that expectation.
Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, said he welcomed departments using grant money for reform-oriented initiatives.
“We have learned much more about what happens on the street as a result of the use of body cameras,” Cofield said. “Before we had to rely on a police officer’s version of a situation.” He added that “Not only police, but other professions need to undergo unconscious bias training.”
With a $20,000 grant, Framingham is expanding a longstanding program in which mental health clinicians from an agency join police officers on calls involving people with mental illness issues. The program, which had three clinicians, is adding a fourth, and expanding coverage hours, according to Lieutenant Patricia Grigas.
Cohasset police are using a $24,042 grant to purchase three new radios for the department’s marine unit, which enforces boater safety laws in Cohasset Harbor.
The existing radios only allow the unit’s officers to communicate on regular police channels. The new radios also will allow them to speak directly with Coast Guard and state Environmental Police officers, as well as on marine channels, according to Police Chief William Quigley.
“We are seeing a ton of safety violations and unsafe behavior on the water,” Quigley said, noting occasions this summer when the department had to seek assistance from the Environmental Police and the Coast Guard. “It’s forced us to up our game.”
Separately, Cohasset was among many communities awarded funds for road safety initiatives. The $11,973will fund the overtime costs required to participate in the state’s special holiday season traffic enforcement campaigns targeting impaired driving, speeding, and other unsafe motorist behaviors.
Burlington is also using its $25,000 award to participate in those special state enforcement campaigns, according to Sergeant Gerard McDonough, who heads the department’s traffic division.
The town’s grant also will fund the purchase of a second portable digital radar board alerting motorists of their own speed and the speed limit, and a second portable radar data recorder. Mounted on a utility pole, the recorder helps police evaluate complaints about speeding at a specific location.
“You get an honest picture of what is happening on a particular street,” McDonough said.
Meanwhile, Framingham is using its $40,000 traffic grant to expand enforcement, particularly in the Worcester Road area; to purchase a radar data recorder; and to boost resources for its traffic safety unit. With its $20,000 award, Ipswich will purchase two portable radar speed signs; participate in the state enforcement campaigns; and educate local students about traffic laws.
Brookline and Lakeville, which respectively received traffic grants of $17,980 and $11,942, also will use those funds to participate in the state’s campaigns. Brookline additionally plans to purchase three handheld Light Detection and Ranging devices, similar to radar guns.
Quigley said the various grant awards are timely given the funding constraints related to COVID-19.
“This is a really welcome infusion of funds that will help keep some of these really important programs going,” he said.
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.